Bosnian Endgame II

On May 22 the Bosnian Serbs had forced their way past the UN soldiers guarding a weapons collection point near Sarajevo and seized two artillery pieces. Heavy fighting erupted. The Serbs shelled Sarajevo; the Bosnian government fired back out of the city. Both sides were firing heavy weapons, the Serbs even doing so from within the collection points. Janvier, Smith and Akashi demanded that the fighting end and threatened air strikes.

The Serbs failed to comply and on May 25, NATO planes attacked an ammunition depot near Pale. UNPROFOR asked NATO not to release the nationality of the planes taking part in the attacks. “This is to protect the same nationalities of UNPF [UNPROFOR] from reprisals by the warring factions.”

The Bosnian Serbs retaliated, shelling most of the safe areas, sometimes with terrible effect. In the town of Tuzla shells hit a crowd, many of them young people, enjoying coffee and drinks in the evening air. Seventy-one people died and almost two hundred were injured. Next morning a second NATO air strike took place.

Smith telephoned Mladic and said that the Bosnian Serbs’ attack on Tuzla was a gross violation of the safe areas resolution. He warned Mladic to reflect very carefully on the course on which he was set and said that matters were now out of his hands. Mladic replied that he was sorry for what had happened, but he “could not forgive General Smith for his stupidity.” It was Smith who was to blame for the violations of the cease-fire. He accused Smith of “crazy and unreasonable” use of NATO air strikes, which had put lives at risk. Was Smith trying to frighten him? Mladic had expected Smith to behave as a reasonable man and as a human being. He could not understand how General Smith had dared to call him. He had expected apologies, not threats. He accused Smith of being not a UN man, but rather part of NATO in its realization of “dark goals.”

Later that morning Mladic ordered his men to start seizing UN soldiers throughout Bosnia. Four unarmed military observers were handcuffed to a fence outside the Pale ammunition dump, and Mladic said they would be killed if another air strike occurred. In all, three hundred UN soldiers were seized as hostages. In another telephone call, Mladic told Smith it was all the fault of his “ preposterous” bombing. Smith countered that it was not the action of a professional soldier to seize unarmed men and threaten them with a televised death. Mladic replied that Smith was responsible for all the Serb soldiers and civilians killed the previous day and for the UN personnel Mladic now held.

It was a crucial moment. Nothing showed the impotence of the United Nations so vividly as the plight of its soldiers chained to potential targets. And nothing showed so graphically the need to reduce the UN’s vulnerability by withdrawing its men from outlying areas.

In New York, Boutros-Ghali reminded Security Council members that he had warned them that this would happen. “Each air strike brings a new wave of hostage taking and takes us a month of negotiations with the Serbs to get the UN personnel released.” He asked the council for advice: should there be a third air strike? He would make the decision, but he would value their advice. None was given. Albright was silent, according to Boutros-Ghali. “It was a unique moment. Security Council members who enjoyed micromanaging every detail of a UN operation, offering endless advice at every stage, suddenly had no counsel to offer me…. I was shocked at this collective abdication of responsibility…. The absence of U.S. leadership was appalling,” Boutros-Ghali writes in his memoirs. The New York Times compared the Clinton administration to “a Halloween prankster who rings a doorbell and runs away.” The secretary general stopped the bombing.

On May 30, Boutros-Ghali presented four options to the Security Council: withdraw all UNPROFOR troops; continue with “muddle through”; change the mandate to permit the use of greater force; reduce the mandate to purely peacekeeping functions suited to the force deployed. He thought the last option was the most realistic, but the Security Council once again ignored the reality and tried to combine muddling through with the use of greater force.

Still, there were changes. The most important was that the U.S. government was finally becoming resolved to grasp the issue. There were several reasons for this. It appears that President Clinton may only now have realized that if UNPROFOR had to withdraw, the United States was committed, through NATO, to assist. If the UN’s withdrawal was not part of an overall peace settlement, it was likely to be contested and bloody. U.S. troops would be inserted and would almost inevitably and at once come under hostile fire in Bosnia. Richard Holbrooke has stated that it was he who forced Clinton to confront this unpleasant reality in the summer of 1995, but it had been the case since at least 1993.

Second, some of the commanders on the ground were growing more and more impatient. As a result of the hostage crisis, Rupert Smith formed from British and French forces two reserve battle groups intended to give more protection to other UN troops. By early June the British and French governments had agreed that these should be reinforced into two heavily armed brigades, which became known as the Rapid Reaction Force. But there were disagreements as to what it should do. On June 9, Akashi, Janvier and Smith met in the Croatian seaport of Split to discuss the crisis. Their views showed how far opinions could differ among people on the same team. Smith stated what were to him the realities: “We do not have the consent of the Serbs [to carry out existing mandates]. We have less co-operation from the [Bosnian government] than we did one week ago. To all intents and purposes we have been neutralised…. [T]he safe areas are under increasing threat.” He said he thought the Serbs did not want a cease-fire; they wanted to continue “to squeeze us.” They might well make an attack on the safe areas and UNPROFOR would find it very hard to respond, outside of airpower. At the same time the Bosnians were getting more and more impatient with the UN. There were signs that they would attack the Serbs more fiercely. The use of airpower had failed. “We have neutralised air power and further marginalised ourselves. The parties and events are moving at a speed much greater than we have proven able to keep up with.” Smith was convinced that the Serbs wanted to win the war this year and would take every risk to do so.

Akashi and Janvier were still more cautious than Smith. Akashi worried that UNPROFOR was on “the edge of the Mogadishu line.” If they did not cross it, they would be accused of being timid and pro-Serb; if they did cross it, they would be accused of being reckless and abandoning chances for peace. He was still in favor of talking to all parties like proper peacekeepers. Akashi wanted the name of the Rapid Reaction Force changed to Theater Reserve, so it would be less confrontational to the Serbs. Smith, by contrast, wanted a confrontation. He said that unless the force was authorized to open corridors to the safe areas, he would rather not have it at all.

Smith pointed to the danger of asking favors of the Serbs. “We need to be prepared to fight,” he said. “If we are not prepared to fight, we will always be stared down by the [Serbs]. We have already crossed the Mogadishu line. The Serbs do not view us as peacekeepers.”

Akashi asked, “Can we return” back over the line? Smith replied with some force, “Only by doing nothing, or by showing an absolute readiness to fight.”

Janvier interrupted to say that fighting the Serbs could never provide a solution. They had to go forward by negotiating.

Beyond Bosnia, there were the wider politics. The election of President Jacques Chirac in France brought a new energy to the international community, especially to Washington. In mid-June, Chirac barnstormed Washington and conducted his own shuttle service between the White House and Congress. He tried to persuade the administration to meet the costs of the Rapid Reaction Force. Policy seemed to be out of White House hands. Clinton was embarrassed. Having long considered that muddle through was the best policy, the administration now began to believe that it was not.

Nothing focused minds so much as the horror of Srebrenica. This is what happened, in the words of a judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia: “After Srebrenica fell to besieging Serb forces in July 1995, a truly terrible massacre of the Muslim population appears to have taken place. The evidence tendered by the prosecutor describes scenes of unimaginable savagery: thousands of men executed and buried in mass graves, hundreds of men buried alive, men and women mutilated and slaughtered, children killed before their mothers’ eyes, a grandfather forced to eat the liver of his own grandson. These are truly scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history.”

This catastrophe exposed more brutally and more graphically than anything else the inconsistencies and inadequacies of the way in which the world was now dealing with disorder and ethnic conflict. It was the consequence of the way in which the international community had tried to manage Bosnia, intervening to save lives but with so little decisive effect that intervention was often interference.

In July 1995 there were some six hundred Dutch peacekeepers in Srebrenica, of whom only three hundred were infantry soldiers; the rest were in support capacities. They were lightly armed and, thanks to the Serb blockade, short of almost everything. In June, the Dutchbat commander, Colonel Ton Karremans, had complained that his forces were hostages of the Bosnian Serbs and able to do nothing.

The Serbs around Srebrenica, by contrast, were prepared for war. They had up to two thousand well-equipped soldiers from the 5th Drina Corps, armed with tanks, tracked armored vehicles, artillery and mortars. They had good logistics, good intelligence and all the supplies they needed.

On July 6, 1995, the Serbs began to shell Srebrenica and then attacked from the south. The United Nations, which had no means of monitoring Serb communications (unlike NATO, which did not always promptly share its intelligence information with the UN), judged at first that the Serbs were embarked on a limited operation to shrink the pocket from the south in order to remove the threat of Bosnian (Muslim) patrols to Serb economic assets and routes in the area.

Dutch soldiers were ordered not to return Serb fire but rather to withdraw. A Dutch outpost on the hill above the town was forced back. Others were overrun or bypassed. On July 6 and 8, Colonel Karremans requested close air support. On both days it was denied by his superiors in Zagreb. The population began to panic.

On July 8, Muslim soldiers fired on Dutch soldiers who were trying to withdraw from the oncoming Serbs; one Dutchman was killed, to the anger of his colleagues in Dutchbat.

That afternoon, Boutros-Ghali was meeting in Geneva with all the senior officials from UNPROFOR and Mrs. Ogata, the high commissioner for refugees. Srebrenica was not on the agenda, but Janvier said that the Serbs were “holding all the cards” and that the UN’s nine hundred soldiers in all the enclaves were potential hostages. Mrs. Ogata said that the humanitarian situation was bleak; very few supplies were getting through to the enclaves.

By July 9 it was clear that the Serbs were embarked on a significant assault on Srebrenica. General Janvier ordered Dutchbat to establish a “blocking position”; if this was attacked, he would authorize the use of NATO close-air support against the Serbs. On July 10, the Serbs shelled the town heavily.

There was still confusion in both Zagreb and New York as to just what was happening; the Security Council was incorrectly briefed on July 10. The Serbs advanced again and the terrified inhabitants of the enclave rushed in panic toward the center, seeking protection from the Dutch. The Bosnian government ordered the Muslim defenders to fire their anti-tank weapons at the Serbs to try to halt their advance; it turned out they could not operate them.

Colonel Karremans expected massive air strikes to take place at dawn on July 11, and everyone in the enclave heard about this. They waited eagerly through the night and watched the sky all morning. No planes came. There had been a mistake in the UN chain of command.

Srebrenica fell that day. By the afternoon the Serb flag was flying over the bakery at the southern end of the town. Up until that time, at least three (possibly five) requests for air support by Dutchbat had been turned down at various levels of the chain of command. Dutchbat had not fired a single shot at the advancing Serbs.

That afternoon, airpower was finally used: NATO planes dropped two bombs on what were thought to be Serb vehicles. The Bosnian Serbs immediately radioed Dutchbat and threatened to shell the town and the Dutch compound, which was filling with refugees, and to kill Dutch soldiers being held hostage, if NATO bombed again. Karremans passed the warning to his superiors. The Dutch minister of defense called Akashi in Zagreb and Annan in New York to say that bombing was endangering Dutch troops and must be halted. It was.

Mladic drove into town and strode around, embracing his troops for the benefit of his own cameramen and ordering Muslim street signs to be taken down. He told the camera that his troops had won victory on the eve of a Serb holy day and that “the time has come for revenge on the Muslims.” By evening there were massive crowds outside the UN base, as everyone sought safety. But many of the men decided to leave their families and make their way some thirty miles through the woods and hills to Bosnian government territory. A long column of about fifteen thousand men, some armed, most not, set off out of the valley.

That night Mladic summoned Colonel Karremans to two meetings. His men videotaped the encounters; they were humiliating. Mladic’s arrogant self-assurance contrasted with the obvious, understandable nervousness of the Dutch officer. Mladic used most of the first session to shout at Karremans, blaming the UN for not having disarmed the Muslims and threatening to shell the Dutch and the refugees in the UN compound if there were any more air strikes. Karremans pleaded for the safety of the refugees. Mladic offered Karremans a cigarette; when the Dutchman demurred, Mladic said, “Don’t worry, it won’t be your last.” He insisted that Karremans drink “to a long life.”

He ordered Karremans to come again, after midnight, this time with representatives of the civilian population. At that meeting, Mladic said he would evacuate the wounded, but he demanded that the Muslims hand over their weapons—and again he threatened to shell the compound. At the end of this meeting Mladic dismissed those in attendance, saying, “I’ve finished. You’re free to go.” The Bosnian negotiator said he was only there by accident and could not guarantee anything. Mladic replied, “That’s your problem.”

Karremans reported to his superiors that there were now fifteen thousand people around his battalion “in an extremely vulnerable position: the sitting duck position.” They had come in terror and in hope of protection, but they were surrounded by Serb tanks and artillery. Karremans said he could not defend either the refugees or his own battalion. He could do nothing. He begged for top-level negotiations to save them.

From Zagreb, Akashi sent Karremans’s plea to New York. He reported that the Bosnian government would allow only the wounded to be evacuated from Srebrenica. They did not want the safe area abandoned. Serb shelling of the area continued, and Karremans met Mladic and his colleague General Radislav Krstic for a third time on the morning of July 12. Mladic gave a long historical monologue, complaining about Muslim attacks on the Serbs. “Mladic also insisted that he see all the men between the ages of 17 and 60 because he alleged that there were ‘criminals’ in the crowd gathered at Potocari and he would need to question each one of them.”

Publicly, Mladic was ingratiating; propaganda—particularly on state television—was always an important part of the Serb war machine. On July 12, after Serb soldiers had surrounded the Dutch compound in Potocari, Mladic brought in a large group of Serb television cameras and journalists, and in front of them he addressed the refugees outside the Dutch compound. As his soldiers handed out bread, water and candy for the cameras, he declared, “Don’t be afraid. Just take it easy. Let women and children go first. Plenty of buses will come…. Don’t let any of the children get lost. Don’t be afraid. Nobody will harm you.” To a delegation of Muslims he said, “Your people need not die. Allah cannot help you, but Mladic can.”

Once the cameras had gone, the deportation of about twenty thousand people outside the compound began. Serb soldiers began to divide families: women and children were allowed onto the buses; the remaining men and boys were ordered in the other direction. After the Serbs told the Dutch that the men would not be harmed and would merely be questioned as prisoners of war according to the Geneva Conventions, the Dutch dropped their objections.

By the end of the day on July 12, about five thousand women, children and elderly people had been deported. They were dropped about three and a half miles from Bosnian government lines and had to walk the rest of the way. Some of them were so badly injured that they would have had to crawl.

Janvier sent Mladic a letter in which he wrote that the humanitarian situation in the enclave “is possibly worse than at any time in this sad and unnecessary war, and will certainly become a disaster of unparalleled magnitude if urgent measures are not taken. My aim in writing to you on this subject is to enlist your support in saving lives on a grand scale.” He asked Mladic to allow the UN to fly heavy-lift helicopters into Srebrenica to bring in food and take out the wounded. Mladic refused.

It seems that the Bosnian Serbs made the decision to murder thousands of men only after the fall of Srebrenica, and after they realized that the UN was scarcely reacting to the assault on the safe area. By July 12, Dutch soldiers were beginning to see random murders and scattered bodies. The largest massacres were yet to begin.

That day in New York, the Security Council was discussing a draft resolution demanding Serb withdrawal from Srebrenica. Annan sent it to Akashi for comment. Akashi felt it “raises unrealistic expectations and its failure to take into account reality on the ground will inevitably lead to further disillusionment amongst the international community and the media.” He also pointed out that many of the Muslims in Srebrenica were all too eager to leave. They were refugees from elsewhere who had come into a hellish trap in which the Bosnian government forced them to stay. Akashi warned against any language in the resolution which might seem to authorize the use of force by the new Rapid Reaction Force to drive the Serbs out of Srebrenica.

Akashi also pointed out “all the inherent complexities and contradictions [of the mandate] … without the means to uphold that commitment, has placed this organisation in the tragic situation in which we now find ourselves.” And “it is essential now for members of the Security Council to focus on humanitarian assistance, rather than suggesting, even obliquely, that the status quo ante can be re-established.”

Annan knew that hypocrisy was stalking around the Security Council. He said in a cable to Akashi, “We stress [to the council] that the objectives of the draft [resolution] are in present circumstances unimplementable without Serb cooperation…. [T]he co-sponsors appear to appreciate these points, but have received strong instructions from the highest level of their cabinets and do not believe they will be changed.”

On the morning of July 12, Annan briefed members of the council in New York; he suggested that the strong language of the draft resolution could raise unrealistic expectations and lead to further disillusionment with the United Nations. There was no real possibility of reinforcing the Dutch, who had no fuel and little food. Mladic had threatened to shell the Dutch headquarters in Potocari, including the more than ten thousand refugees around it, if the UN used force.

The French ambassador, Jean-Bernard Mérimèe, recalled the original ambiguous wording of Resolution 836, which set up the safe areas. He reminded his colleagues that the co-sponsors had deliberately chosen the wording “all resources available” as opposed to “all necessary means” to deter attacks on them. If, after careful consideration, the Secretariat came to the conclusion that the objective of restoring the safe area could not be achieved with the means at hand, then the Security Council would accept and support such a conclusion. Sir David Hannay, the British ambassador, agreed, saying operative paragraph 6 was not an instruction to use force and it was for Akashi to explore which approach could achieve the results.

The ambassadors discussed whether the Bosnian Serbs might attack other safe areas as well. Annan said that with only 80 peacekeepers in Zepa and 280 in Gorazde, there was little UNPROFOR could do to prevent it. The UN just did not have the means.

That same day the council met again. Members were told that fifty-one Dutch soldiers who had been prevented by the Muslims from withdrawing into the enclave had fallen into Serb hands. The council unanimously adopted Resolution 1004. It demanded that the Bosnian Serbs cease their offensive and leave Srebrenica immediately. It demanded that all the parties respect the status of Srebrenica as a safe area. It demanded that they respect the safety and freedom of UNPROFOR personnel. It demanded that the Bosnian Serbs release immediately all UN personnel they had detained. It demanded immediate access to Srebrenica for the Red Cross and other humanitarian agencies. As the resolution was passed, General Mladic was still holding the Dutch peacekeepers captive and his men were preparing the massacre of thousands of Muslim men and boys. The demands and the threats of the Security Council meant nothing.

The Bosnian Serbs were entirely to blame for the massacre at Srebrenica in July 1995. But it could take place only because of the dreadfully flawed decisions made over a number of years by members of the Security Council of the United Nations.

Many of the men captured by the Serbs were taken to the nearby village of Bratunac, where they were packed in a hangar. Mladic blocked access to them by UNPROFOR, UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross. He told them, “Neighbors, if you have not seen me before I am Ratko Mladic. I am the commander of the Serbian army and you see we are not afraid of the NATO pact. They bombed us and we took Srebrenica. And where is your country now? What will you do? Will you stand beside Alija [Izetbegovic]? He has led you to ruin….” He assured them that he was negotiating a prisoner exchange.

One witness who survived later recalled that Mladic exclaimed to his troops, “There are so many! It’s going to be a feast [mezze]. There will be blood up to your knees.” And indeed, all the men were taken away to be knifed, bludgeoned or shot to death, many of them after they had been forced to dig their own graves.

As the killings began, the UN’s military observers around the eastern zone began to write grim reports. Here is some of what they noted during the day of July 13:

0800 HOURS: THE NUMBER OF BIH SLDRS [Bosnian Muslim soldiers] [ sic] POW BY THE BSA [Bosnian Serb army] IS NOT KNOWN YET BUT GEN MLADIC TOLD THE UNMO [UN military observer] TEAM AND CO DUTCHBAT THAT THE BIH HAVE SEVERAL HUNDRED DEAD SLRS IN THE AREA OF THE BANDERA TRIANGLE. HE ALSO ASKED THE CO DUTCHBAT TO CONTACT BIH SLRS AND INFORM THEM THAT IT IS NOT THE GENERAL’S INTENTION TO KILL ANY MORE SOLDIERS OF THE BIH. THEY HAVE ONLY TO SURRENDER AND HAND OVER THEIR WEAPONS.

1530 HOURS: REFUGEE SITUATION KLADANJ: 12 COACHES HAVE BEEN OBSERVED LEAVING KLADANJ FOR TUZLA…. UNMO VISITED THE TRANSFER POINT AND OBSERVED THE FOL:

NOT LESS THAN 5000 REFUGEES PRESENT WITH MANY MORE ARRIVING ALL THE TIME…. NO MEN OVER THE AGE OF 12 WERE OBSERVED AND VERY FEW OVER 60. THE MORALE IS VERY LOW WITH A LARGE NUMBER REFUGEES CURSING UNPROFOR. ALL THE REFUGEES HAVE MINIMUM OF CLOTHING AND HAD BEEN STRIPPED OF ALL VALUABLES.

2300 HOURS … UNMO WAS ABLE TO VISIT THE TRANSFERPOINT AND PAKBAT [Pakistani Battalion] MED POST AND WAS INFORMED OF THE FOL:

REFUGEES HAD WITNESSED MEN BEING SEPARATED FROM OTHER AND SEVERELY BEATEN, STONED AND IN SOME CASES STABBED.

AT LEAST ONE BSA VEH [vehicle] DISAPPEARED EN ROUTE TO THE DOP [dropoff point] AND PEOPLE ABOARD HAVE NOT BEEN SEEN SINCE.

THE SEVERELY WOUNDED (APPROX 30-35 STRETCHER CASES) HAVE BEEN TAKEN TO BRATANAK [Bratunac] BY THE BSA.

From Zagreb, Akashi issued a statement condemning “the ongoing forced relocation of thousands of civilians from Srebrenica by the Bosnian Serb forces.” He called their action abhorrent.

From Paris, President Chirac called Clinton to suggest that American helicopters carry French troops into Srebrenica to relieve it. It was a desperate proposal which had no chance of being accepted, let alone implemented. Richard Holbrooke said later that he recommended that NATO airpower be used against Bosnian Serb positions in other parts of the country, but this was rejected by all the troop contributors.